“On an average day I can only physically type for around half an hour. Writing a novel while pacing is like filling a swimming pool with an egg cup. But the thing is, if you keep going, eventually you do fill the pool up.” INTERVIEW with Francesca Robbins.
Congratulations again! What’s the reaction been like from friends and family?
So lovely. They are really excited for me which makes it so worth it. My nine-year-old niece proudly told her teacher, which made my heart burst a little bit.
Where were you when you heard?
Asleep, my husband had to work very hard to wake me up and give me the news!
Has the win sunk in and what does it mean to you?
No it still hasn’t really sunk in. It’s not an exaggeration to say it means the world. Writing a novel is a lonely business, even more so in a pandemic. The thought that anyone would ever read my book has seemed fantastical over the past few years. I have spent a fair few nights in hospital since I started writing it, lying in the ward thinking ‘What if I’m not well enough to finish my book?’ So for me just getting to the end of the manuscript was the goal. This is some seriously delicious icing on the cake.
Award judge Nelle Andrew said of Victoriana: “Right from the get go, a sense of purpose and place and narrative impetus which means you can sit and just explore the narrative. A real sense of a writer, writing for a reader, rather than just to a reader.” How did it feel to read her comments and any tips?
Well, what a huge compliment that is, thank you to Nelle. I’m so glad she felt a sense of impetus and purpose, that is what I wanted to convey.
My tip would be to look closely at novels you admire. Before I wrote the novel I thought a lot about the historical fiction novels of the past decade that I have really loved — books like The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I went back and re-read them to try and work out what it was about them that had captured me so completely. They all grab your hand and pull you in to their universe so that you’re lost in another time and place, hooking you into a mystery with compelling authentic characters, and making you turn the pages compulsively. That is what I aimed to recreate — that blissful loss of self in another world and a rattling plot.
I think in summary, it’s that old chestnut: set out to write a novel that you would like to read.
Your prize included a compilation of readers’ comments. Any favourite responses?
Well they were all wonderful, but I was absolutely thrilled with the one that said “*Whispers* this gave me goosebumps. Maggie O’Farrell and Jessie Burton vibes”. They are two absolute writing heroes of mine, although I’ve got a long way to go to reach their level of craft. For now I’m ecstatic with vibes!
Victoriana explores issues of isolation and prejudice experienced by characters who live with sickness and trauma. Could you say a bit about why this is important to you?
They are by no means the only issues explored in the novel — it is first and foremost a pacy murder mystery — but they are an important part to me. Books can be a life raft to all sorts of isolated, voiceless, alienated, or oppressed people, but just as importantly they can breed empathy and understanding among those who don’t deal with these experiences. There are some brilliant depictions of disability in literature, but often when written from an able-bodied author’s perspective they are painfully inauthentic, and even damaging to the disabled community. The more nuanced, complicated, fully-realised disabled characters in literature, the better.
Where, when and how do you write?
It very much depends on my health on a given day, which is unpredictable. On an average day I can only physically type for around half an hour. Writing a novel while pacing is like filling a swimming pool with an egg cup. But the thing is, if you keep going, eventually you do fill the pool up. And I am nothing if not dogged.
I am a firm believer that reading is writing, and that is something I can do when my body is misbehaving, even if it has to be audiobooks in bed. When my health allows I walk the dog to help me think (I also believe that thinking counts as writing). If I can tap some sentences out on my phone while lying down I will. There have been months when I was too unwell to write anything, and great days when I can do an hour or more. I don’t ascribe to the ‘write every day’ or ‘set a word goal’ dogma — I’d love to sit at a desk all day and blast out thousands of words, but it doesn’t work for my body.
Your manuscript also longlisted in 2020. How much has it changed since and why did you re-enter?
The vision for the novel is the same, but it was unfinished in 2020. It just so happened that I finished the manuscript around the same time as the 2022 BNA deadline. I re-entered because the organiser, Caroline Ambrose, seemed genuinely disappointed not to be able to finish the novel in 2020, and that made me think — well someone wants to read it!
You won a mentorship in 2020 with Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency. What was the best thing you learned?
Good question, I learned loads! I had no idea how a literary agency, or the publishing world worked when I started the mentorship. I had done a great writing course at Curtis Brown Creative and learnt about submitting to an agent, but the publishing industry was a mysterious, unexplored galaxy. I think the biggest thing I learned was that the whole process moves at a glacial pace, so adjust expectations accordingly.
In addition my friendship with the five other mentees in the 2020 intake proved what I had long been told — you need fellow writer friends to support you through the long road to writing and (hopefully) publishing a novel.
I’ve already name checked a few contemporary writer favourites, and I try to read widely across genres. I do love the great Victorian novelists like Wilkie Collins, Dickens, the Brontës, Hardy, and Elizabeth Gaskell, but I also love the way twenty-first century Neo-Victorian authors revisit and in some ways reinvent those worlds — Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Sarah Water’s Fingersmith and Affinity, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. And let’s not forget the Queens of Spooky and Crime, Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie.
Where will you keep your trophy?
Minerva is currently looking mysterious and wise on the mantelpiece.
What’s next for you?
I have a hospital stay coming up this autumn and when I’ve recovered I’ll be doing some more edits early next year before I go out on submission to publishers. Nervous but excited for the next stage.
Francesca Robbins is a disabled writer who lives in a cottage by the sea in England with her dog, husband, and “enough books to bury them all alive”. She initially studied Law at Cambridge University, then returned after a long illness to study her first love, English Literature. She has worked as a copywriter, at a Sunday newspaper, and as an English tutor.
Since childhood Francesca has escaped into books to cope with chronic illness, and she is passionate about writing authentic disabled perspectives. Victoriana explores the isolation and prejudice experienced by characters who live with sickness and trauma, also drawing inspiration from gothic literature, Greek tragedy, English folklore, and pacy murder-mysteries. As a work in progress, Victoriana also longlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2020, The Curtis Brown First Novel Prize 2020 and won a 2020 Madeleine Milburn Mentorship.
Read the opening page of Victoriana by Francesca Robbins…
As the raven flies south from London a swathe of dense, green-gold forest rears up like a ship’s prow above a squally ocean. It is a patch of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the valley below. The wildwood.
The raven has nested here among the towering oaks and hornbeams all his life. He has ventured abroad recently to that dark labyrinth on the horizon, but the stench of the Thames kept him fastidiously pecking at his feathers. Today he flew up like one more wisp of smoke from the city, his nest a lodestone to his heart.
At last he soars on an updraft towards the wildwood. He floats for a moment above the canopy that has burst into leaf in his absence, the sun pooling like oil on his blue-black wings, then circles down to a ruined, soot-blackened wall deep in the trees. He surveys the woodland floor, then hops down, an elegant gentleman, hands tucked behind his back, dipping and bowing in obeisance to the sacred ground of his ancestral home. Dog violet and wood anemone fill the glades, the smell of snowy wild garlic the air, the early bluebells a shivering sea.
But something has changed.
A sign has been nailed up, puncturing the flank of a living tree. Scratched into it are black characters like raven claws:
HIGH LEVEL LINE WORKS, Metropolitan Railway Division. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
The raven cannot decipher the hieroglyphs, but the vibrations in the air speak of violence. The land has been blasted with infernal human magic, a trench carved through the floor of the wildwood. Not since the rupture, when trees were torn down to build The Great House — part of raven lore — has there been a sense of disturbance like this.
Suddenly, from deep within the scarred earth comes a long keening cry, redolent with human longing, reaching up to him on a wind that ruffles his feathers. He stamps his feet and snaps at the restless zephyr as it turns in the air, a tornado of invisible energy, carrying within it that vortex of grief and love that burst from below the ground.
The wind has a journey of its own to make. It slips past the raven and the Great House, southwards out of the forest, down through the hop fields and orchards of Kent toward the English Channel, where it bellows the oxblood sails of a clipper for a few hours, whipping the grey water into peaks. It arrows over the flatlands of northern France, whistles over the snow-capped peaks of the Midi, then coasts the warmer currents of the south, rippling through silver-green olives and nodding the heads of sunflowers. At last it dances in exultation over Le Vieux Port, the blue bite out of the heart of the city of Marseilles, thick with masts; it clatters the sails and rigging, and tickles the sweating brows that cluster around the quays. After a final ecstatic whirl over the peacock water it turns inland, holding its breath through the medieval maze of the market, thick with rotting fish heads until finally — finally — it creeps up the wall of La Vieille Charité and into a high chamber to tenderly lift a lock off the damp forehead of Nurse Agnes Hartsilver.
Agnes lies on her narrow lumpen bed, one arm flung out. She barely registers the bells tolling across the city calling the faithful to worship — in any case, she does not count herself among their number. She is reading and absentmindedly tapping out the music of the spheres on the bed frame with the handle of the scalpel bound to her wrist. It has been held there by a leather strap, safely sheathed, since her father’s death, although while she nurses it is covered by the long sleeves of her uniform. Her father taught her to dissect with it when she was still a child in India — much to the disgust of her mother — making use of the dead bull-frogs and scarlet sun birds the cats brought in to the army camp. It was very like her father, she often thought, to bequeath her his finest scalpel and cherished anatomy books, but not a penny to feed herself with.
In her other hand is the most up to date medical text she could find that morning in the second-hand bookshop at the Place des Moulins, where she spends most of her meagre monthly stipend.
Marseilles is currently in the grip of unseasonably hot weather, and a cholera outbreak to boot. There was a brawl at midnight between some newly docked sailors from the Argentine and the local fishermen. Agnes spent thankless hours stitching them up and setting broken bones. They were drunk, and leering at her — “Not a nun? Why not, can’t give up your love of this eh?” — as they grabbed at their urine-stained crotches. This leaves her rather more weary than afraid nowadays. Nonetheless, she occasionally finds herself reaching for the scalpel under her sleeve. She has not yet needed to use it for protection, but if necessary she knows how. She didn’t crawl into bed until the bells were striking four.
But Saturday is her only free day and she is reluctant to sleep and miss out on precious time for study. The squabbling of gulls is carried in on the wind that flutters at a clipping pinned to the crumbling plaster so it crackles like a fire. Agnes looks up. It is a fly-blown newspaper article, yellowed by time and salt air. “American Medical College Admits First Female.” She sighs, and turns back to the book.
A sentence is underlined.
“The weaker vessel must be kept from exercising their brains; the demands of light housekeeping duties and the bearing of children should not be exceeded.”
She stabs the paper with her pencil so hard that it leaves a hole, as she writes
It is plain whoever authored this has never borne a child if they can so easily yoke housekeeping and the bearing of a human from one’s own body in the same sentence. Her tongue feels for the chip on her front tooth, still sharp years after she bit down on the willow bark. She thinks of the cramps that wracked her as the tiny creature passed from her like a clot. She had fished it from her chamber pot, then limped down to the wharf in the darkness, the blood oozing warm down her legs beneath her skirts. She set the baby out to sea in a sail boat carefully crafted from newspaper with sheaves of wild rosemary —- that’s for remembrance. To a passing sailor it would have looked like offal scraps thrown out by a butcher.
Agnes feels her eyes start to burn and shakes her head free of the memory. She looks back down.
“In the case of neurasthenia women are more likely to suffer due to the wandering of their wombs. It is impossible to underestimate the effect of the matrix upon the minds of the fairer sex.”
“PAH!” she spits out. She has to lay the book aside. It is too hot to succumb to anger, or grief.